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On the Misery of the Academic Job Cycle

(Note: This appeared as an article in the Middle East Studies Association’s IMES newsletter. I'm reproducing it here with a few edits.)

Navigating today’s academic job market is a spectacularly unpleasant experience.

On a practical level, the application process is a time sucking exercise in redundancy.


Multiple websites must be scanned continuously for months to catch potential new openings. Opaque job postings must be interpreted and arcane details must be clarified – for instance, what is a statement of teaching purpose and how does it differ from a statement of teaching philosophy? And why does a department need both for a job that pays $42,000 a year to teach a 5:5 load? Letters and statements must be written, copied, pasted, edited, and triple checked to ensure that the letter for Ohio no longer contains references to Michigan.

To manage the many simultaneous moving parts, the applicant must devise a 4 dimensional calendar to monitor deadlines and to allot time to secondary tasks like politely harassing colleagues who generously offered to provide letters of reference at earlier, more peaceful points in the semester. Naturally, all application materials must be completed while the applicant continues teaching, writing, occasionally sleeping, and trying to clutch together the tatters of their personal life.

Those of us who specialize in the Middle East have additional burdens to bear. In a good year, a maximum of 15 positions might be advertised that could reasonably accommodate those with the broadest specializations. Perhaps 5 of those might be good fits. In a bad year, like this one, the pickings are slim.

And fit is subjective. For some applicants, a fantastic but niche dissertation topic might bias the minds of committee members and get them scratched from the list in favor of a candidate working on something with more general appeal. Worse, applications to departments without a strong area studies focus will inevitably fall into the hands of committee members who have little knowledge of the region, let alone the current debates in the field. Many such jobs will contain “Islamic” in the title, and will have nothing to do with theology.

Alas.

A Traumatic Shitshow


The process is an emotional meat grinder. To get the job, you have to be the one candidate perfect enough to make it through several grueling rounds with other, often more distinguished candidates.

This often creates disturbing new hierarchies among peers. Applicants must approach advisors, colleagues, and friends for recommendations, knowing in advance that their referee is likely writing the same letter for several colleagues applying to the same positions. Fortunately after several turns in the job cycle you cease to feel like a wretched Dickensian urchin and instead just feel like a regular burden.

And you are rejected a lot.

While early in one’s job hunt the rejections can be cripplingly painful, time and experience dull the sting of rejection. Eventually you might be pleasantly surprised to find the rare dismissive email in your inbox, even when it is a form letter that still contains the item “[insert name here].”

As you move deeper into the hiring season without word from prospective schools, fit and location become less important than finding something to keep you afloat in the coming year. For those with families, the uncertainty has a radiating effect on their lives too.

This process is even more difficult for those facing the complex hurdles of race and gender (or both) or for those who have taken non-traditional paths through academia, (which despite its hollow idealism still rewards the prestigious and the familiar over qualified candidates from a lower track).


Students from elite schools who had ready access to grants, postdocs, and other accolades will inevitably leap over peers who had to do all of their work on a shoestring budget while teaching and possibly working on the side. But it’s ultimately a game, and unwritten rules are still the rules.


In the end, a lucky few will get tenure track positions. But even those success stories often come with a case of survivor’s guilt to complement their usual early-career impostor’s syndrome. Another lucky few will find temporary stability in multi-year visiting teaching positions or fellowships. Many others will find themselves farther down the scale of precarity, forced to start the process over again in a few short months. Many will find nothing.

Lessons from Experience

I am particularly sensitive to this process because I have taken a roundabout route into the field by most standards. I earned my Ph.D. in the Middle East and have spent half of my career in the region – partly by choice, partly by necessity.

I’ve also dealt with far more job searches than I’d care to remember. Over a four year period, I submitted close to 45 applications across four and a half job cycles. In my position in the United Arab Emirates, I also chaired or sat on 7 different search committees. Though each encounter I had with the job cycle was unremittingly miserable, my experience on both sides of the table gradually helped me hone my sense for what made some applicants successful and others not – excluding luck and circumstance, both of which played major roles in my own successes.


Over the years, I developed a few principles that helped me as I worked my way into the system. They may not apply to all cases and are not exhaustive by any means. Some are little more than detailed explanations of academic job hunt truisms, whereas others are simply based on personal observations. I like to share them whenever I feel they might be useful.

They are as follows:

1. Know what you are applying for.


Only apply to programs and jobs that are a good fit for you and always tailor each application to the job call.

This is hard when you need a job, but it is important. Most job listings get dozens, if not hundreds of applications, and the committee’s first task is to pare the initial pool down to a manageable list of a few dozen candidates. Unless your CV is too good to be true, statistically it is unlikely that you will even reach the stage where someone will briefly glance over your meticulously-prepared teaching statement. From the perspective of a committee member, it was easy to eliminate candidates for a position focused, say, on the Arab Middle East, if they solely specialized in Anatolian history.


Getting past this stage involves some luck, but it helps if you are a clear fit for the position. When I applied to my position in the UAE, the committee initially listed me as unqualified because of my international Ph.D. However, one future colleague considered the fact that I had lived and studied in the region to be an advantage rather than a defect and convinced the rest of the committee members to add me back to the pool. Once I passed the initial hurdle, I could do more to help my candidacy, but the nebulous category of “fit” played a huge role in both of my tenure track hires.


In general, I learned to not waste time I did not have applying to positions I did not fit (or want). This relates to my second point.

2. Spend lots of time on your application materials, especially your letter.


I am sure you would be shocked to know that members of hiring committees are sometimes distracted, lazy and biased. They will scan your CV to see where you went to school and what you published. If you pass that initial screening, they will probably glance over your letter in search of typos or relevant themes in case someone asks them about you in a committee meeting.


They will definitely toss your application the first chance they get.

For this reason, you need to make things as clean as you can. As petty as it may sound, typos and small errors can be fatal to an otherwise good application. I am a notorious repeat offender here. In one case, I noticed that I prominently misspelled something in the FIRST LINE of the letter soon after the deadline had passed.


I somehow did not wither and die of mortification.

To reward your committee members, your letter should be clear and strategically organized. It should have something approximating a thesis that shows what you want to do and why you want to be there. Above all, it should show how you will be useful for the school and the department. Highlight things like life experiences and skills that are not on your CV to show how you will be a good little cog, but avoid narrating if the story does not boost a specific argument in favor of your candidacy.

To structure your letter effectively, you need to interpret the job call accurately. If the position is at a research institution, put your research focus at the front of your letter. If you are clearly applying to a teaching school, put your teaching first and emphasize this as a strength. Avoid overselling yourself as a researcher at a teaching school, because paradoxically someone may see your talent and assume you will be disgruntled or unwilling to contribute in the classroom. Always include something about your service or administrative skills and be clear about how you fit as a colleague.

Remember, the committee members, not other applicants, are the real enemy here. Avoid controversial statements or anything that may be construed as a red flag. Definitely refrain from attacking particular styles of research or teaching, even if it deserves it, because someone on the hiring committee will hate you for it.

The time required to create a truly effective application is yet another good reason to apply to fewer, better fitting posts.

Two related points: I have an anecdotal theory that the worst jobs will require the most application materials. Likewise, your last letters, which will always be for the positions you want least, will be the best.


Alas.

3. Have a range of colleagues who can provide letters of recommendation.


Ideally choose people with professional or scholarly opinions of your work rather than your advisors, who may be tempted to talk about you as a student. I tried to have 5 people who I could ask for letters at any one time to avoid overwhelming any of them. My magic combination was: 1. Department head, 2. Prestigious scholar in the field who for some reason held me in high regard, 3. Colleague who could speak to my strengths as a teacher and administrator. These particular references would respectively corroborate my claims in the teaching, research and service portions of my application letter.

I truly do not know if anyone ever read the recommendations.

4. Make sure you represent yourself as a willing and able colleague.


One of the reasons I got my last job was that I made it clear several times that I am a team player who wants to help the department run smoothly (not a lie!). The wolfish look that this statement put on the dean’s face should have been a warning sign.

Alas.

Whether you like it or not, you are going to be saddled with tiresome service obligations if you are hired, so it is good practice to at least pretend that you would be happy – nay – eager, to take on a service role in your letter and interview if (knock on wood) you get one.

5. Think internationally.


Looking at jobs across the globe will not only open up new options, it might provide interesting life experiences that you would never have imagined if you stuck to the States. In the final year of my Ph.D., I applied to 15 positions and got one interview, but no job offers. I managed to secure a temporary post, which allowed me to remain in Beirut. In the next round, I was rejected by 14 schools, got one interview, and got a job in the UAE after the first candidate for the position dropped out. While I had never planned to live in the Gulf before I applied, my experience in the Emirates was personally and professionally rewarding and it allowed me to develop myself as a candidate for future applications.


The European job market is worth watching, especially if you miss out on the fall jobs. In Europe, postings will often begin to emerge like groundhogs around February, but they can continue to roll out much later. I forwarded one post in Amsterdam to a colleague as late as April. While most of the jobs pay worse than positions in the US, they are worth the effort if you are either a good fit, or that the job may provide a good base from which to plot future moves.


The late application season means another several months of misery, but it may also offer opportunities that you may miss if America is your only option.

7. Keep your spirits up.


I hesitate to say that it's a game, but it is. Success and failure are really just a matter of chance, and probably also luck. Many applicants are equally qualified, or differentiable by shades of preference rather than ability. I know amazing scholars and teachers who may never get a tenure track position and I have known people who never should have been hired in the first place who will occupy seats in the academy until they die.


You will not hear back from most jobs, but do not let that depress you or affect your self-worth. This is all a matter of odds, and those odds are never in your favor. However, that says more about the system than it does about you.


My final comments are about that system.

The Ethics of the Hiring Committee

The academic job gauntlet disproportionately affects fresh graduates and young scholars stuck in short term positions. Those of us who are no longer either may feel as though this is no longer our problem. Some may even celebrate the wretchedness of the process as a final rite of passage into the ranks of our field. We must resist this.

While few of us bear any responsibility for the system as it was constructed, (or for the alarming slide towards the normalization of cheap grad students and short term academic labor), we must still consider what we can do to mitigate the negative effects of this system on our precarious and new colleagues. This is especially important since many of us have experienced two once-in-a-lifetime shocks in a single generation: the 2007 financial crisis and the COVID pandemic. Not only is the job market increasingly rickety, but job seekers are increasingly living in precarious, debt ridden situations as well.

In the absence of a clear path towards structural change, perhaps incremental change in the application process might minimize its impact on early career scholars. Where we can, we should push for a simplified application process that does not penalize scholars for missing the tenure track on their first tries. Moreover, we should try to limit the paperwork that applicants submit in the initial call. If a candidate passes the first round, then the committee could request additional documents like syllabi, letters of recommendation, teaching statements, and the like.

Thankfully, some of these trends are already gaining traction.


Forcing change may be difficult, if not impossible. Some aspects of the application process are legally or institutionally mandated to prevent corruption and nepotism. Some of the more irritating bugs in the system (such as excessive application documentation) were likely intended to make the process fairer, or at least less openly biased in favor of Oxbridge and Ivy League graduates – though if that was the goal, it has grotesquely failed to produce the intended outcome.

Above all, we need to be empathetic and supportive despite our own time commitments and struggles. I would not be where I am without colleagues and mentors who were willing to take the time to help me succeed, and I am sure I am not the only one. If we forget this, we do a disservice to not only our colleagues, but also to the field if it means we lose out on a future of brilliant scholarship over a problematic process.


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